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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Elegy

Michael Free holds Masters’ degrees in TEFL (University of Birmingham) and Arts (McMaster University). His professional interests include educational leadership, Content-based Language Teaching and English as a lingua franca. He is very active in professional development, currently serving in several positions in Korea TESOL ( KOTESOL): Chair of the 2020 International Conference Envisioning With Your Students, Chair of the Teacher of the Year Award committee, and Treasurer of the Gangwon Chapter. He is a Visiting Professor at Kangwon National University in Chuncheon, South Korea.

 

Introduction

On the morning of April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry sank just of the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula. In the ensuing weeks and months, Korea thought and talked of little else. It was an extremely emotional time, full of justifiable fury and inconsolable grief. For teachers here, there was one particularly dreadful aspect to the Sewol tragedy: Of the over 300 people who died, the majority were students from the same school. Thinking of their once-full classrooms, now empty and devoid of life was heart-rending. This poem emerged out of my feelings during that time. Looking at it now, I don’t think it’s particularly good, in aesthetic terms. But it was, and remains, heartfelt, which is more the point.

 

Elegy

In my heart.

There’s a song for you.

I don’t know the tune, but I know its name.

 

It makes me think of you, Ji-young.

All those people you saved.

All those people you couldn’t.

 

임이여, 그 물을 건너지 마오.

임은 기어코 물속으로 들어가셨네.

원통해라, 물속에 빠져 죽은 임.

아아, 저 임을 언제 다시 만날꼬.

 

The words of this song are old.

Far older than you will ever get the chance to be.

 

Don’t cross the river, love,

Ah, you dare to cross the river, love.

Swept away, drowned, love.

What am I to do?

 

They make me think of you, Ji-young.

All those people you saved.

All those people you couldn’t.

 

I didn’t know you, but I know your name.

There’s a song for you.

In my heart.

 

Notes

The Ji-young named in the poem is Ji-young Park, who was a crew member aboard the ferry. Amidst the Sewol tragedy’s cast of characters, rife with incompetence and corruption, she was a bright light. According to eyewitnesses, she helped passengers escape and distributed life jackets, even running up to a different floor to get more when she ran out. She herself was not wearing one, reportedly saying she “had to help others first.” She didn’t make it to safety, but died a heroine at the age of 22.

The verse in Korean is called Konghuin (Harp Melody). Kevin O’Rourke, in The Book of Korean Poetry: Songs of Shilla and Koryo, describes the story and provides the English translation (the four italicized lines):

“Yeo Ok composed this song after hearing the harrowing tale from her ferryman husband. A white-haired crazy man had come to the river that morning. The waves were rough, but the man, unmoved by the pleas of his wife, insisted on crossing and was drowned in the attempt. His wife poured out her sorrow on the harp. Yeo Ok, moved by her husband’s tale, took down her harp and composed Konghuin.” (O’Rourke, 2006: 3)  

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